Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: from urban corner stores to suburban corporate headquarters back to cities

Where exactly did Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come from? According to Frito-Lay, the impetus for the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from Northern cities and Plano, Texas:

Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence…

Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”…

Over the next few months, Greenfeld went on market tours of small stores in Chicago, Detroit and Houston to get a better feel for what consumers craved. She worked with Frito-Lay’s packaging and product design teams to come up with the right flavor mix and branding for the bags. She went with a chubby devil holding, a Cheeto, Frito or chip on a pitchfork, depending on the bag’s contents, she recalls, a memory independently corroborated by newspaper archives…

“In response, Frito-Lay launched a test market of spicy Lay’s, Cheetos, Fritos and Bakenets in Chicago, Detroit and Houston” beginning in August 1990, the company wrote in a statement.

The article focuses more on the controversy of exactly how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came about but I think the geography is pretty fascinating. Here is why I think the geography matters:

  1. The impetus were existing products in urban stores. Even as more Americans lived in the suburbs than cities by the 1980s, a large company like Frito-Lay cannot ignore consumers in the city.
  2. The product was developed in the Dallas suburbs. Plano is a notable suburb because of its growth and wealth (and McMansions). But, there are plenty of suburban office parks where ideas are discussed. Who knew the snacking fate of America was decided in a relatively anonymous suburban facility by business professionals? (And how many other products have a similar story?) Across the street is Toyota American Headquarters and then each direction on major roads leads to strip malls, fast food, and highways.
  3. The product was tested in cities and the idea developed in the suburbs took flight. Now, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are widely available (though it would be interesting to see the sales breakdown by geography).

Modern capitalism was able to span these disparate locations and churn out a product loved by many. From a suburban office park to snack aisles everywhere…

Can workers collectively fight against back-to-the-office plans?

Some employers want workers back in the office and at least a few employees do not like that idea:

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After a year of working from home, most workers feel the same way. Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the Covid crisis subsides, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Far fewer look forward to returning to the office full time…

And yet, in a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year — if not sooner — according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network…

The majority, or 58%, of employees said they would look for a new position if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position, according to a recent report by FlexJobs, which surveyed more than 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic.

Ultimately, however, “nothing will change,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Employers have virtually unlimited power,” he said.

Both sides can justify changes. Employers want to recreate office culture and conversation plus see people face to face. Employees want flexibility, no commute, and assurances of safety.

The quote at the end above suggests workers do not have much leverage. They can complain about changes. They can say the world has changed significantly. They can say that the prior system did not provide benefits long-term.

But, what if large numbers of workers in significant companies refused to go back to the old office-based systems? Could leading firms afford to have large numbers of workers quit? Could these workers afford to quit and know there is work elsewhere? Not all workers could do this and it might not matter at a lot of companies. If something started in the tech industry where more workers work from home for the long-term, would this spread? Or, if some business saw this as an advantage – get better employees by letting them work from home – this might encourage some others.

A mass labor movement over working from home may not materialize. Yet, COVID-19 could at least change the thinking about offices and doing work from home. Under conditions of a pandemic, at least some work got done. Perhaps such arrangements will continue for some but it could also extend to many more workers.

Private city for business opens in Honduras

A Honduras city primed for business will soon open for remote operators:

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Próspera is the first project to gain approval from Honduras to start a privately governed charter city, under a national program started in 2013. It has its own constitution of sorts and a 3,500-page legal code with frameworks for political representation and the resolution of legal disputes, as well as minimum wage (higher than Honduras’s) and income taxes (lower in most cases). After nearly half a decade of development, the settlement will announce next week that it will begin considering applications from potential residents this summer.

The first colonists will be e-residents. Próspera doesn’t yet have housing ready to be occupied. But even after the site is built out, most constituents will never set foot on local soil, says Erick Brimen, its main proprietor. Instead, Brimen expects about two-thirds of Prósperans to sign up for residency in order to incorporate businesses there or take jobs with local employers while living elsewhere…

The idea behind charter cities, along with their predecessor seasteading, which sought to create independent nations floating in the ocean, is to compete for citizens through innovative, business-friendly governing systems. For some reason, the idea has long been linked to Honduras, an impoverished country whose governing system is classified as “partly free” by the human rights organization Freedom House. Paul Romer, an American economist who pioneered the idea of charter cities, tried to start one in the country a decade ago. It failed, but Honduras has spent much of the time since then writing a law to enable such cities, which are known in the country as Zedes, short for zonas de empleo y dessarollo económicos (employment and economic development zones).

But the prospect of creating pockets of prosperity that play by their own rules is controversial for obvious reasons. Próspera has drawn protests from local residents who see a lack of transparency and little to gain from its existence, and a group of local political leaders signed a letter of opposition in October. This month, an arm of the Technical University of Munich said it’s reevaluating its relationship with Próspera and that it generally withdraws from projects if there are indications of human rights violations. Representatives for TUM didn’t respond to requests to elaborate. A spokeswoman for Próspera says it has had a “great working relationship with TUM over the years.” 

Although this city has been in the works for years, it seems appropriate that is will open for remote businesses in the COVID-19 era. Even without a physical presence in the city, corporations will be able to incorporate there and enjoy the benefits.

Down the road, it is interesting to imagine what a thriving or beleagured charter city could be like. For some reason, I am thinking of some of the more colorful communities from Star Wars where all sorts of characters come together to conduct their activities. How many people would come to live and work versus how many will access the city’s benefits from afar? What kinds of alterations to the regulations might be necessary? How many free market cities might this inspire elsewhere?

Target on The Magnificent Mile is preferable to empty retail space

With reports of Target’s interest in moving to Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I heard some concern about such a normal big box retailer moving into a prestigious retail space. Here is the problem for Chicago and many other communities facing retail vacancies: filling space can be really hard.

Google Street View image August 2019

Brick-and-mortar retailers are not doing well overall. This extends from suburban shopping malls to high-status locations like Manhattan or downtown Chicago.

And this issue is not just about shopping and what people can purchase. Busy retail anchors a number of important activities: sales tax and property tax revenue for municipalities; tourism or visitors from other communities who want to come spend money because of the scene; restaurants and other land uses that cater to those out for a shopping trip. Vacant structures do not just lack these features; their emptiness is also a blight, a suggestion that corporate and visitor interest is low, a reminder that the property is not generating the kind of revenue it could.

Filling large retail spaces is no easy task. Many communities are struggling with this and seeking other land uses (recent examples here and here). A building with some sort of activity, even if it is a downgrade in terms of status, is preferable to no activity. The Magnificent Mile might not seem so magnificent with Target – people can find this shopping all over the place – but it beats becoming The Vacant Mile.

Homes as investments in continually increasing national median home values

The national median house value kept going up through November 2020:

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Despite a global pandemic and an economic downturn, U.S. home prices pushed new boundaries last year: The national median sale price for existing homes hit $310,800 in November, marking 105 straight months of year-over-year gains, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

This could reinforce the now common viewpoint that homes are investments. Increasing median values for over eight suggests reinforces the idea that homes generally go up in value. Except for big economic crises – think the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s – houses accrue value over time. Even COVID-19 could not derail this.

This is often viewed as a good thing. Homeowners like that their homes are increasing in value because they can make more money when they sell. Communities take this as a marker of status. Realtors and others in the housing industry benefit. No one wants a drop in housing values across the board. (Of course, this is the median so the values can differ a lot by location.)

The commodification changes how owners, developers, and communities think about houses. They are not just the private spaces to escape the outside world – an established idea in the American Dream – but goods to profit from. An increasing value must be good and steps in other areas should be taken to protect home values.

This has numerous effects. It encourages Americans to invest resources in buying housing when that money could be put to use elsewhere. It contributes to single-use zoning where homes are protected from any other possible uses. It can exacerbate the inequality gap between those who can buy homes and those who cannot or between those with homes in places where the values keep going up versus those with homes in places with stagnant values.

Videogames under the tree to sizable global industry

The flood of new gaming consoles and new game titles to Americans for the Christmas season hints at the size of the video gaming industry:

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Global videogame revenue is expected to surge 20% to $179.7 billion in 2020, according to IDC data, making the videogame industry a bigger moneymaker than the global movie and sports industries combined. The global film industry reached $100 billion in revenue for the first time in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association, while PwC estimated global sports would bring in more than $75 billion in 2020

The videogame industry has boomed in recent years because of the variety of ways to play games. Gone are the days when all one had to track were console sales and games sold for their respective consoles and PCs. With the rise of digital-copy game sales, mobile games, in-app purchase freemium games, cross-platform games that aren’t limited to a specific console, streaming game services like Microsoft’s Game Pass, games-as-a-subscription models, and online distribution services like Steam, along with varying levels of transparency, anyone wanting to make apples-to-apples comparisons encounters an unwieldy fruit basket.

While console sales will get a boost from new versions, that’s not the biggest chunk of the industry, nor the fastest-growing. The biggest gain is expected to come from mobile gaming, with China playing a big role in smartphone and tablet gaming revenue, Ward said. Excluding in-game ad revenue, world-wide mobile gaming revenues are expected to surge 24% from a year ago, to $87.7 billion.

The gamification of the world is well underway.

Seriously, it is interesting to compare the status of videogames compared to the two industries mentioned in the article: movies and sports. These are established industries with prominent actors around the world. They have been established for decades. Videogames, on the other hand, are more recent – only several decades in the hands of the global public – and still have negative connotations for many (too violent, a waste of time, played only by a certain segment of the population, etc.). Since videogames are big business and part of their spread is due to the smartphone, which many have, will videogames have a different status in a few years?

Companies moving out of California – yet continuing offices and operations in California

I have read several news stories discussing the move of companies out of California. Such news feeds chatter about companies and residents leaving places because of politics, taxes, discontent, etc. But, the details in this one story suggest some companies are shifting some workers and activity while retaining operations in California.

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“Oracle is implementing a more flexible employee work location policy and has changed its corporate headquarters from Redwood City, California to Austin, Texas,” the filing said. “We believe these moves best position Oracle for growth and provide our personnel with more flexibility about where and how they work.”

The company already has a significant presence in Austin, opening a five-story, 560,000 square-feet campus overlooking Lady Bird Lake. It also has employment hubs in Redwood City, Santa Monica, Seattle, Denver, Orlando and Burlington…

Oracle follows a handful of similar moves by California companies and high-profile business leaders leaving the state. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he had moved to Austin last week at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit. His exodus followed months of bashing California for its handling of the pandemic. The billionaire CEO said he is maintaining company operations in California, but also has significant operations for Tesla and SpaceX in Texas…

HP Enterprise also announced its decision to relocate its headquarters from San Jose to the Houston suburb of Spring earlier this month. Palantir Technologies relocated from Palo Alto as well this year, landing in Denver. Tech giants Google and Apple have also been expanding their presence in Austin over the last several years.

Headquarters are important, particularly for cities. Attracting the headquarters of a major company is a big status symbol for any big city. See the interest in trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. The implication is that the new location has a favorable business climate and is on the rise (with the opposite assumed of the previous location).

But, headquarters are just part of a company. They may be the nerve center and the physical home of company executives. Yet, large companies today can have offices and plants all over the place connected to a headquarters elsewhere.

Another way to read the moves out of California above is to suggest that these companies are hedging their bets by being located in numerous advantageous locales. Having multiple locations can help take advantage of local tax breaks for particular purposes, build on local work forces, maintain their place in local social networks, and provide points to pivot around when conditions change. The headquarters may have moved but they may move again and the companies still see some value in keeping operations going in California (even if some of this is simply due to inertia).

This suggests a different future reality than one where cities serve as anchors for major corporations. Instead, major multinational corporations keep offices and facilities all over the place, ready to move when needed or when an opportunity arises. Austin and Houston might be attractive now, Miami or Denver in a few years (just sticking to US locations). And as cities continue to look for an edge over their competition, attracting another big company is important…even as that company is actually rooted in multiple locations.

Where shopping mall debt ends up

A story of several traders who shorted shopping mall debt provides insights into financial workings of shopping malls:

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Then, in October 2018, Sears declared bankruptcy, and they decided it was time. Here was the scheme: MP built a position against two slices—called “tranches” in Wall-Street speak—of mall debt with, they thought, a relatively low likelihood of being repaid: CMBX.6 BB and BBB-, which were filled with roughly $2 billion worth of debt, an outsized chunk of which was issued to 39 struggling shopping malls. They bought credit default swaps on the block of debt, which amount to insurance policies on the bonds. If the bonds went completely bust—similar to, say, your house burning down—they would be owed their entire value in cash. But even if the tranches decreased in value, MP’s insurance would be worth more and they could sell the swaps for a profit. In any case, it was an asymmetric bet: the downside risk was confined to what they’d have to pay to hold the insurance, but the potential payout was many multiples of that amount—theoretically in the billions…

Meanwhile, McKee was becoming known on Wall Street as “The Queen of Malls,” and other bearish hedge funds began asking her for advice on shorting CMBX.6. “All I did was talk about malls all day,” she said. This included portfolio managers working for the infamous billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn, who, by the end of 2019, had put on a $5 billion short position, arguably the largest by anyone on Wall Street. This went against conventional wisdom at the time, considering that the value of the mall debt was going up, but once word got out that Icahn had entered the ring, the trade was taken more seriously on Wall Street. “That made a lot of people stand up and say, ‘Hold on, we should look at this,’” McNamara said…

Between March and July, as businesses struggled to pay their rent, CMBS delinquencies, according to Trepp, increased by a staggering 492 percent, the value of the hotly contested CMBX.6 tranches were slashed in half, and the brick-and-mortar retail sector was on the verge of going belly-up. Large retailers like Gap stopped paying rent; Neiman Marcus, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor, Loft, Pier 1 Imports, GNC, and JCPenney (among many others) filed for bankruptcy; Victoria’s Secret was closing hundreds of stores and Lord & Taylor announced it was closing its doors for good and liquidating inventory; TJX and Macy’s recorded losses of $5 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively; foot traffic for shopping malls plummeted to basically zero; and, in April, clothing sales fell 79 percent, the largest drop on record. “The economy has declared war on your aunt’s wardrobe,” Scott Galloway, marketing professor at New York University, mused on his podcast Pivot. As for Crystal Mall, Simon Property Group, its landlord, defaulted on the mortgage and is planning on handing over the keys to their special servicer…

COVID-19 also revealed a dirty secret hidden in the crawlspace upon which many commercial mortgage-backed securities were built. A University of Texas at Austin study published in August claimed that banks knowingly inflated underwriting income for $650 billion worth of commercial real estate mortgages issued between 2013 and 2019, including by 5 percent or more for nearly a third of the roughly 40,000 loans. “A well-documented historical pattern is that fraud thrives in boom periods and is revealed in busts,” the university researchers wrote, adding that end investors were unaware of this hidden risk, a deception akin to buying a Ferrari secretly outfitted with a rusted-out Kia engine. It could be argued that CMBS had been a magic trick all along, with big banks one step ahead, luring investors to pick a card from a rigged deck. It took a global pandemic—an act of God—to reveal this financial sleight of hand.

Americans and financial institutions were bullish about single-family homes into the 2000s, until they were not and the housing market imploded. Americans liked shopping malls…and is this a repeat?

Since the story suggests those shorting shopping malls are in the minority, does this mean other investors truly believe shopping malls will successfully reinvent themselves and or redevelop enough to successfully pay their mortgages? Or, are a lot of people hoping that shopping malls make it through?

The default of shopping malls could have a broad effect, particularly on communities that will struggle to fill that space and recapture some of the tax revenue that shopping malls could bring in. More broadly, the difficulties retailers face could impact a lot of people in multiple ways.

Making a big deal out of a round number, Dow at 30,000 edition

The Dow recently topped 30,000. What is notable about this number?

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How big a deal is Dow 30,000?

It’s just an arbitrary number, and it doesn’t mean things are much better than when the Dow was at 29,999. What’s more impactful is that the Dow has finally clawed back all its losses from the pandemic and is once again reaching new heights. It is up 61.5% since dropping below 18,600 on March 23.

It took just over nine months for the Dow to surpass the record it had set in February, before panic about the coronavirus triggered the market’s breathtaking sell-off.

I like this explanation for two reasons. First, it downplays hitting 30,000 just because it is a large round number. Why should 30,000 be more important than 29,000 or 29,852? Because round numbers seem more meaningful to us, especially one that is a change from the 20,000s to the 30,000s. Second, it provides a longer context for the rise to 30,000. That particular number is meaningful in part because of the record in February, the drop in March, and then the steady rise. Arguably, this rise since March is much more important than getting past a particular number.

In addition to these steps, a few more could help people interpret the 30,000 figure. Instead of focusing on a particular number, how about discussing the percentage change? This is done regularly with other financial figures. Such a story is ripe for a visual showing the change over time. And a final option would be to downplay such milestone numbers in this story and in future reporting and instead focus on other markers of financial patterns rather than emphasizing outliers (peaks and valleys).

Percentage of delinquent FHA loans keeps rising

The economic and social consequences of COVID-19 might be just beginning. A new report suggests a number of FHA mortgage holders are behind in payments:

More than 17% of the Federal Housing Administration’s almost 8 million home loans nationwide were delinquent in August, according to a new study from the American Enterprise Institute.

“Rising FHA delinquency rates threaten homeowners and neighborhoods in numerous other metro areas across the country,” American Enterprise Institute researchers said in the just released report. “It would be expected that these delinquency percentages will increase over time…

The increase in late FHA loan payments is even greater than the rise in the number of overall mortgage delinquencies since the start of the pandemic…

A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas warns that highly indebted FHA borrowers are at risk of losing their homes when payment forbearance programs end.

More people falling significantly behind on their mortgages – plus other issues related to housing – could have ripple effects on a number of actors:

  1. Americans who need housing. If you cannot afford your mortgage or rent, what viable options do you have?
  2. Mortgage providers. If a lot of mortgages go into default or foreclosure, what does this mean for these large financial actors?
  3. Local governments and communities. With larger numbers of people without housing and limited housing, what happens? What happens to local tax revenues?
  4. Housing investors and people with resources. Does this mean they can take advantage of opportunities?

The memory of the burst housing bubble just over ten years ago lingers. While few predicted a worldwide pandemic and the resulting impact on housing, we could know within a few months whether this will lead to another housing crisis.